Joe Cloud has a knack for visualizing. And a lot of custom slaughter- and processing-plant owners might be wise to take a look at what he’s seeing for the future. The managing partner of T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, Va., is moving his operation into the high-potential realm of agri-tourism.

“Food has always been part of our family’s culture,” he explains. “Simply put, we are in the fee-for-service business of allowing livestock producers to directly market their own meats.”

But a quick read of the company’s mission statement draws visions of something more heady than operating a custom-processing plant:

“We are in the health business: creating healthy customers, healthy regional farmers, healthy workers and a healthy food community by connecting local farmers to local eaters, retaining food dollars in our local communities, providing a safe, healthy and affordable food supply, and healing the earth by promoting ecologically sound farming practices.”

It should be explained that after he left the family farm, Joe, now 55, went on to Harvard’s School of Design, studied landscape architecture, consulted for major international companies and the US Department of Defense and Homeland Security. And, he also had stints as a city planner and is currently studying for an MBA in economics with emphasis on sustainability. He has also grown accustomed to being mistaken for John Travolta.

Change of plans

With all those credentials, it would be no stretch to see him anywhere but in a custom meat plant. But fate intervened. His parents purchased a farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with the intent of starting a vineyard. But shortly after, his father was involved in a serious accident that necessitated Joe’s semi-regular commute from Seattle to help manage the new family farm.

Then, somewhere along the line he attended a seminar given by articulate Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, whose notoriety soared after the publication of Michael Pollan’s book “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

Salatin, who happened to be the largest of four interests leasing parts of the Cloud farm, was preaching that small farmers were becoming endangered because of the closing of so many small, local custom plants.

Cloud and Salatin became friends and soon started looking at the former T&E Meats plant in Harrisonburg. It was being sold by Tommy and Erma May, who were retiring after many decades of ownership. It was one of the last remaining custom plants that could process Salatin’s livestock.

In 2008, they purchased the plant, which also had a retail store, and some wholesale accounts, complete with refrigerated truck delivery services. The new owners agreed to let things run as they were for the first year and monitor what was happening.

“We went heavily into television and radio advertising to promote the retail store,” Cloud recalls. “We thought that was our area of greatest potential. It wasn’t. We quickly stopped our wholesale activity and delivery. We put our entire emphasis on slaughter and processing for those who wanted to private-label and market their own meats.”

They formally closed the retail store in 2011.

The private-label aspect of the business went from about 5 percent of sales to the current level of 100 percent. Cloud says they were able to use the space once devoted to retail and convert small areas of the 7,000 sq.- ft. facility to create greater efficiencies. They added a 12-ft.-by-16-ft. freezer box and began seeing custom volume climb by 30 to 35 percent every year.

In July, they removed the 1972 steam boiler and went to a high-efficiency, natural-gas system that saved them money on energy bills.

“The point is we just didn’t have the money to do what we wanted,” Cloud adds. “So, we put everything we had into where we were seeing the greatest return on our efforts. Now we’re seeing greater levels on fresh ground products like sausage and beef, which we do in chub packs.”

He notes that the number-one service customers are calling for is curing and smoking meats. That may be coming later but must await a smoker, design and implementation of HACCP plans, and an improved skill set to produce quality products, he says.

T&E Meats, named after the original owners, is now sometimes referred to as True & Essential Meats on the firm’s web site, www.temeats.com.

Continued growth

The resurrected company and its owners have grown to 20 employees and slaughter two or three days a week under Talmadge-Aiken inspection. They serve several hundred accounts, most of which bring in their animals and pick up their finished products. Their primary customer base is within a three-hour drive of the facility.

T&E Meats is also aided by a testing laboratory located one mile away and nearby Valley Protein, which picks up materials for rendering up to three days a week, and a nearby incinerator to handle materials the renderer will not accept.

This story thus far is one of practical, hands-on management designed to sustain the local livestock industry. But as we said earlier, these owners are thinking “outside the plant.”

“We are moving into what we call agri-tourism,” Cloud emphasizes. “Education is part of our mission and we will soon be teaching classes on meat cutting. By the fall, we expect to enroll two students into an apprenticeship program in conjunction with the Virginia Bureau of Labor & Industry. This will be a three-year program and the students will come out with a journeyman certification. There is a vast need for skilled kill-floor and meat-cutting workers.”

The plant hosts countless school groups and offers tours. Its transparency is aimed at being realistic about where meat comes from, but more importantly, how sustainable agriculture and doing things the right way can be a major force in restoring meat to its former socially correct place on the center of the plate.

The foresight of the owners has been noted in such journals as the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, and thought-provoking blogs from Cloud on meat topics are pointed and reach audiences nationwide. He’s even entered essay contests sponsored by the New York Times that have been judged by anti-meat establishment luminaries. His succinct comments are fired right into the campfires of anti-meat social engineers.

“With our continuing emphasis on education, we will soon be offering opportunities for foodies to come in and learn how to process their own animals, cut their own pork chops, make their own sausage and take the finished product home,” Cloud says.

The owners note that they do no advertising and that word-of-mouth recommendations about their business from satisfied customers has been extremely effective. Products coming from their plant are marketed by the owners and reach some of the regions finest restaurants and can be found in retail establishments as far away as Washington, DC.

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing`in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.